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Intellectual property can be a crucial business tool, but not everyone thinks hard enough about protecting their big ideas. In 2001, plumber Brad McCarthy got stuck on a remote beach in Cape York in north Queensland and spent about six hours getting his car out with a hand winch. He knew there should be a better way. Responding, he invented Maxtrax, a lightweight vehicle-recovery device for bogged off-roaders.

After designing the Inventhelp Number, he attended a Queensland Government business seminar, where the advisers stressed getting patent protection before his idea was publicised. “One of the first things we did was speak to a patent attorney to find out how you could protect the concept,” says McCarthy, who launched Maxtrax in 2005. It really is now sold in about 30 countries worldwide. McCarthy has patents in key markets including Australia, Europe and also the US, and also the business also has a trademark on the distinctive original “safety orange” hue it ways to use its moulded product. Unlike McCarthy, however, many inventors and businesses with recommended cruel their likelihood of success from the first day.

Their big mistake? Ignoring patents or other intellectual property protection before they spruik their idea to investors, the general public or even friends. It can be a costly error. Bradley Postma, principal at patent and trademark attorney firm Cullens, says small and medium enterprises (SMEs), specifically, often neglect safeguarding their IP or think it will be too costly. “The majority of protectable IP goes unprotected,” he says.

Europe could be a particular trap for exporters because, unlike a few other major markets, it lacks a grace period making it possible for public disclosure of the invention without affecting the validity of a subsequent patent application. That opens the way for the idea or product to become copied. “In Australia and america that you can do something regarding it, provided you’re in a one-year window – in Europe you can’t, it’s too far gone,” Postma says. “In that case, businesses have shot themselves within the foot; they’ve forfeited their rights and everyone can copy [their idea].” Postma observes that business people often think their idea is just too easy to warrant a patent. “However, if it’s successful and simple, it will probably be copied and you need to get advice.”

Unitary patents on way – Margot Fröhlinger is principal director of Inventhelp Company News, European and international legal affairs in the Munich-based European Patent Office (EPO), which oversees about 160,000 patent applications a year. She recently completed a road trip warning Australian companies that poor patent and IP safeguards could derail their European market opportunities. Companies have to innovate – and protect their inventions. “You need the protection of the IP and, particularly, patent protection to acquire a good return on your investment,” she says.

Many international businesses have baulked at exporting to Europe due to complex patent processes across multiple jurisdictions that can end in potentially high costs and marginal protection. However, the EPO is promoting a new unitary patent system that promises to be a game changer. This will make it possible to get protection in as much as 26 participating European Union member states using the submission of the single request to the EPO.

A November 2017 EPO study, Patents, Trade and FDI within the European Union, suggests better harmonisation of Europe’s patent system has the possibility to increase trade and foreign direct investment in high-tech sectors, delivering annual gains of €14.6 billion ($A22.8 billion) in trade and €1.8 billion (A$2.81 billion) in foreign direct investment.

Fröhlinger believes Australian businesses across all sectors have chances to expand in to the European market, which boasts more than 500 million people, high gross domestic product and robust consumer demand. “It’s essential for Australian businesses to know that there is a big change ahead in Europe. I’m not talking just about patents,” Fröhlinger says. “It’s very important with an integrated IP portfolio considering patents and trademarks and (covering) design. Should they don’t have (IP) individuals-house they should attempt to get strategic business advice.”

The value of intangible assets – This call to action for Australian businesses comes as the international Innovation Index 2017 reports on countries’ IP receipts as being a portion of total trade. Basically, the measure indicates how a country has been doing on the IP front. While Australia scores well with regards to inputs into research and development, the US (5.1 per cent), Japan (4.7 percent) and Finland (2.9 percent) easily outperform Australia (.3 per cent) on IP royalties.

The message? For the most part, Australian companies are certainly not great at converting research into value and treat IP almost as an administrative function. The exceptions are health tech leaders, including medical device dppdwz Cochlear and sleep-disorder business ResMed, which understand the significance of intangible assets like logo and data use, and make their businesses around it.

In a knowledge-based economy, IP has grown to be Inventhelp Inventions and governing it has stopped being just a matter of organising trademarks and patents. Intangible assets are rapidly more and more important than tangible assets and require appropriate consideration.

A review of Australia’s top listed companies, released by Glasshouse Advisory in September 2017, endorses this type of sentiment. It reveals that 38 per cent from the companies’ value (regarding a$550 billion) is not really included on their balance sheets; this indicates that investors are operating without insights right into a significant proportion from the corporate asset base.